Archive | Culture RSS feed for this section

China Dolls vs. the Tinted Tangerine

25 Jul

China, and most of Asia for that matter, has an obsession with white skin. Whitening shit is in EVERYTHING. Face creams, body wash, toners–you name it, it’ll make you whiter.

It’s a historical trend:

But it’s also gotten completely out of hand:

Her eyes are the headlights

When I first got to Asia I was blown away by this. Especially since the level of white they’re striving for is the kind of pale I associate with sickness and hospital visits. Of course, I wanted to know why. The theory I’ve heard kicked around most often sounds something like this:

In the days of yore, white skin (in Asian societies) meant that you didn’t need to work outside. Read: You had money, status, and power. White skin=high class. And since, generally, high class is equal to or greater than beauty, it came to be that sickly pale bitches equalled beautiful bitches.

It makes sense. Whether or not it’s true is probably something someone with a degree in economics should sort out. But it got me thinking.

You know those tinted tangerines that seem to float around our culture? Those girls (and guys) who have spent way too much time tanning and are unaware that they looked like a slightly burnt orange?

Oompa Loompa gone wrong

Well I wonder if this Caucasian♥dark pattern follows the Asian♥light principle. Because, traditionally speaking, we whiteys tend to be cold-climate folks. The only way you got to have dark skin in the good-old-days was if you had enough money to take you to warmer climes.

So, is our formula inversely proportionate to the Asian one? When someone makes fun of how pale my skin is (and it’s bad), are they really just raging against my inability to balance the equation: dark skin=beautiful?

Maybe. I know that I, for one, am hitting the tanning booth this week.


How Wude

2 Jun

Jiang Zemin, ex-president of the PRC

“Chinese people are so rude.”

At home, abroad, on the internet, in my own house, I have heard that phrase like a mantra, again and again. It resonated with me the last time I was in Canada and heard it repeated by an Aunt and Uncle who were citing an incident that took place in a grocery store. From what I could gather, a group of Chinese people were taking up a whole aisle in the store and wouldn’t get out of the way to let others pass.

“Chinese people are so rude,” the story ended.

And I wondered at it because, I’ll be honest, from this Canadian’s point of view, Chinese people are outlandishly rude. Picking noses in public, screeching into cell phones on public transit, letting kids defecate in the street (and sometimes indoor garbage cans), littering both indoors and out, hocking loogies out bus windows–the list goes on. The language itself isn’t even that polite. “What would you like?” literally translates as 你要什么?–“You want what?” Could you imagine walking into a shop at home and having the clerk ask you, “Hi. What do you want?” It would be a little rude, no?

Yeah, it really does happen

And yet…and yet.

We were in a well-known Turkish restaurant here in Guangzhou the other day. I turned to the waitress and politely asked her if I could have more water. When I turned back around, my flatmate and good friend–a lovely Cantonese girl named Lum Lum–was looking at me strangely.

“Why did you just change your voice like that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I was a little confused.

“You raised your voice almost an octave. You talked to her like she was a little child. Why did you do that?” She was completely baffled.

This led to a conversation in which Nathan (my other flatmate, really good friend, and Lum Lum’s significant other) tried to explain to her that I was not speaking to her like a child, and that raising the tone of your voice whilst at the same time softening it was actually a sign of politeness in our culture*.

Who does that?

She was not convinced.

“Yeah but, don’t you think she can hear you turn around and talk to us in a completely different voice as soon as you finish talking to her? Don’t you think it’s a little rude to speak to her differently than you’re speaking to everyone else?”

Well how about that. Here I was having a Chinese person stare at me in utter confusion because someone who she had come to see as a polite, well-adjusted person had just acted blatantly rude to someone in the service industry. She was flummoxed.

In the end she begrudgingly agreed that it must be a cultural thing (thank God Nathan was there to back me up), but to this day she continues to remain highly suspicious of the whole voice-change concept.

This is not an isolated incident.

Time and again my students will attempt to understand the layers of politeness that are built into our language**. More often than not they need constant reassurance that, no, saying “please” this many times does not sound fake and, no, you’re not insulting someone’s intelligence by asking them a question in such a roundabout way. And China stares at us in awe for a host of other things: the flaming that occurs on blogs and the horridness that gets printed in our tabloids (and occasionally “respectable” newspapers) being just two examples.

So, are Chinese people really so rude? And, for that matter, are Canadians (I only speak for my own nationality here) actually all that polite?

Well, yes and no. Lum Lum herself gets super choked at people who cut her off when driving or goes off on people talking too loudly in restaurants. And I know lots of Canadians who scratch their nuts in public or grope the waitress’s ass. But at a certain point we have to remember that people are just people–rude people are rude people and polite people are polite people no matter what flag flies over their head. Yes, there is an underlying aspect of culture to a lot of it, and that’s where understanding is needed. If someone is being rude to you, feel free to tell them to piss off, but don’t go about blaming the entire nation for it.

Grow up and go have a conversation with one of these people you keep bitching about. Trust me, most of their cultures are more than willing to welcome you in and share anything you would want to know. Can the same be said of ours?

Actually, yeah, it is in this case

That's what I thought

*Seriously, try it out yourself. When you’re trying to be very polite, your tone of voice changes.

**For example:
What’s the time?
Excuse me, do you have the time?
Would you mind telling me the time?
Could you please tell me the time?
Sorry to interrupt but I was hoping that you’d be able to tell me the time.

The number of ways to be polite in English is actually staggering.

A Public Service Announcement

31 May

I haven’t been paying attention to my blog for almost a month now as there have been other things taking up my time: organizing the 150GB worth of music on my portable hard drive, editing two years’ worth of pictures, and crying myself softly to sleep over the Conservative majority that swept through Canada earlier this month. So things have been a little busy.

And with that, I’d like to bring you some public service announcements. We’ve been joking lately about all the ones we remembered from our childhood while at the same time realizing that if we still remembered them, they must have lodged in our little kiddie brains and probably did us some good.

I’m going to show you two that had zero effect on me:

Drugs Drugs Drugs

And my ultimate favourite: Don’t You Put It in Your Mouth

This all came to a head while I was reading a post by one of the bloggers/writers/awesome-people I follow, Peter Nowak. He posted a NEW public service announcement featuring–I shit you not–Pete the Porno Puppet and Ron-freakin’-Jeremy. Enjoy your childhood in a much creepier way:

Amy Chua: A memoir, not a how-to

4 Mar

Amy Chau with daughters Louisa (Lulu) and Sophia

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the Amy Chua controversy, I’d suggest turning to any woman around you who looks like a mother, mentioning either that Chinese mothers are superior, or that Yale professor who published the essay about parenting, and watching said woman explode. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

If you really don’t know what it’s all about, I’ll explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up: Amy Chua wrote a book called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ta da!

Okay, not quite, I know.

Amy Chua wrote a memoir. That memoir had an excerpt published. Now people are losing their minds. Although, I must admit, quite a few are keeping them. Just in the wrong places. One blogger who hadn’t even read the book yet decided to make some serious assumptions by creating a parallel between herself and Chua’s children. The tone of the post quickly reveals that the author hadn’t even read an interview with Chua or her children, never mind the actual book she was blasting. However, I need to get off my horse on that one as my first/gut reaction wasn’t much different. I just showed restraint in blogging. I believe this is where the word “neener” gets repeated once or twice.

Growing up and moving on.

All right, let’s start by not forgetting that Chua was already an internationally acclaimed author by the time she printed this, her third book. Her first, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, was praised by both the Economist and the Guardian in 2003. This woman can write. I may not agree with all her ideas–and others would agree with me–but she is talented, gutsy, and, you know, a professor. I’ve only got Wikipedia to back me up. She’s got a piece of paper with the word “Harvard” on it. Actually, she’s got two pieces of paper with that word.

She even goes as far as to use the term “Confucian filial piety” in her writing, which just about blew my mind. Now, for those who are not familiar with Chinese, there is a word–孝顺 (xiàoshùn)–for which the closest English translation is “filial piety”. This is a word that is pervasive in the Chinese language and, by parallel, Chinese culture. I know it intimately as it comes up again and again when teaching English to Chinese students, and the confusion I see after explaining to them that there isn’t a regular-usage word for that in English is frustratingly repetitive.

Wikipedia gives a pretty good definition of filial piety:

“In somewhat general terms, filial piety means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one’s job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.”

If anyone can give me a one-word adjective that explains all of that, and which we use in our daily conversations, I’ll bake them a cookie.

But moving back to Chua. When I first heard about the book (and before reading it), I was outraged. Here was this woman, basically abusing her kids as they grew up, ripping away their childhood, and claiming that it was in THEIR interest? How dare she! The outrage, the injustice! The opinions of a 25-year-old, childless Westerner were not only offended, they were accusatory. How dare she.

And yet, they were opinions fuelled by media bias, my own misgivings about Chinese parenting (don’t even start on me unless you’ve lived here), and the media. Oh wait, did I say the media twice? Let’s leave my horror at Chinese parenting aside for the moment as, a) I’m just as horrified by Western parents, and b) I’m childless and therefore not technically allowed to comment on parenting skills without sounding like a complete idiot. So that leaves me with the overstressed point of The Media. Because, let’s face it, the media lost its shit when the Wall Street Journal published its article, controversially entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”. Just imagine the explosion my poor expat mind had over that one.

And that’s exactly what happened to everyone else. The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt. The excerpt was a selection made, as claimed by Chua herself, without prior approval and with the mind to cause upheaval. As Chua states:

“The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Some people even seem to have failed to read the subtitle:

“This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

Does that really sound like a how-to-book on raising the perfect child?

I’ll admit some parts of the book scare me. The no-drink, no-bathroom, no-food piano/violin practices. The lack of fun. The screaming. The abusive nature of some of the criticisms towards her children. But this book reads as a coming of age story, not for the kids, but for the mother herself. Hell, even the kids support her. Sophia (the eldest) went so far as to publish an open letter to her mother in the New York Post, and both kids spoke with the Guardian about how much they appreciate and support their mum.

And let’s face it folks: her kids are successful. And happy. And balanced. Well, so it seems. We should probably check back in a few years, but for now, they seem to be sailing just fine. Chua has a very good point when she says that children are happy when they succeed, when they excel, and when they have confidence in their ability to face and overcome adversity. I may not agree with some of her methods, but her results and her motivations are hard to argue with.

More importantly, and the thing that people keep forgetting, is that this book is a memoir. Chua in no way claims that the “Chinese mother” is any better than the “Western mother” (both of which are terms Chua admits she’s loosely defined). This isn’t an “I’m right, you’re wrong, be like me” manifesto. This is the story of a woman who changed, a woman who saw her life crumbling around her, got the crap scared out of her, questioned everything she had done, and then went ahead and did one of the most Western things possible–she exposed herself and all her flaws to the world.

Personally, I thinks she’s bloody brave. She made a lot of mistakes, like everyone does, but was willing to look at herself and question whether or not she was the one that needed to change. In doing so, she became an even bigger role model for her children.

I prefer my mom, but I think Amy Chua did okay.


14 Feb

There’s a lot of stuff white people like. I in particular got pegged by Wes Anderson, grammar, and Banksy.

Given, all of those things are awesome. I mean, I watched Bottle Rocket in 1994. (This is where you realize, according to SWPL, that I’m cooler than you.)

And who doesn’t love catching someone screwing up to/too? If you’d lived with sisters like mine you’d derive a sick kind of pleasure from mocking grammar mistakes, TOO (see that Kate?).

The Banksy one just about made me piss myself, especially after having seen Exit Through the Gift Shop. Well, more like after reading the comments left by IMDB users who don’t seem to understand that it’s a statement, not a work of art. And no, those thing are not necessarily synonymous.

But the true glory of SWPL was revealed to me in a stunning stage-stealer last night at the spoken word open mic at Loft345.

Let me back up.

It started when, after hearing a banshee-like shriek of horror, a good friend came galloping over with tears practically carving their distress through his beard. It turns out that there had been a TEDx conference in Guangzhou–where we live–only a few months ago. This, for both my friend (who will henceforth be referred to as “Nathan” for brevity’s sake) and I, was a serious blow to the success of our lives because, obviously, one of our life goals is to attend a TED conference. AND WE MISSED IT. And not only did we miss it, IT WAS FREE. For those of you who aren’t that well versed in the TEDverse, these conferences usually cost something like $4000 to attend. Yeah, it’s expensive, but I’d be instantly prestigious and HIGHLY intelligent if I ever got to go. Plus, I might get to meet Al Gore.

Anyway, spoken word commenced. La la la, speak speak speak, etc etc etc–wait! Another friend (brevity–>Lum Lum) gets to the stage. Lum Lum almost shits herself whenever she has to talk in front of people, so we tend to heckle her and get the most out of it. Last night, however, she punched us all in the gonads.

“#134,” she began, “of stuff white people like: The TED Conference.”

We almost died.

Check out the whole article here:

#134 The TED Conference

And check out Exit Through the Gift Shop:
(the movie is much better than the trailer)